Over the past four days, I've been on a business trip to Georgia. During that period, I have managed to read most of Jacob Needleman's 2008 book "Why Can't We Be Good?"
This book is a superior piece of work by an expert philosopher, but, far more importantly, by a real human being. I highly recommend it to all readers.
In the book, he presents an idea we have encountered before here in this space. An essential idea that cannot be escaped in examining the question of morality, good, evil, and inner work. He expresses it in his own language, of course, and in the eloquent manner that only a man with his education and experience can. Nonetheless, however the idea is expressed (and I certainly do use my own language for it) we always come to the same point of work.
Lists of rules about how we ought to behave and treat other people are useless. They do not constitute a true morality.
I mentioned this in a blog post in 2007 when I was in Cambodia touring Angkor Wat. Our guide, a terrific guy, was (unsurprisingly) well-versed in Buddhist lore, and able to cite long lists of behavior required of Buddhists. The lists tell us what is wrong with us, what we ought to do to fix it, how we ought to behave while we are fixing it, and how it will be after everything is fixed. Okay, let's be fair. Every religion works more or less this way. Right?
If only it were that simple.
The difficulty that man confronts in the context of good and morality is that good and morality rooted solely in an intellectual understanding are both weak and relative. It is only by planting the root of this question firmly in the ground of Being that anything meaningful results. The chaos we find ourselves surrounded by in contemporary society is a direct result of a failure to understand this.
In order to understand this more fully, we must understand what it means to have an organic sense of being.
Now, we may not have this sense all the time; we may only catch a fleeting glimpse of it, or perhaps we have just heard about it. At any rate, we must make it our aim. We must learn to dwell within this organic sense of being, this sense of self which can only arise as a consequence of the awakening of the organism to the need for work.
Right now, the organism doesn't really understand the work. Even if it awakens, it will still be ruled by biological forces. Well, we can't really help that. What we are meant to do, anyway, is not to fix that, but observe it.
The difference is that if the organism is awake, at least -- like the mind, which also wanders off in many directions -- it will be willing to contribute to the effort. And it is only as this awakening of the body takes place than any space at all can be prepared for the eventual arrival of real feeling.
Needleman is, in my opinion, heroically and unstintingly generous in offering us his own experience of this question. Of course, it is couched in language more suitable for the general public, and that is exactly as it should be. Nonetheless, he makes it quite clear that the root of all real morality must lie here within the connection between the mind and body.
I have a quite extraordinary experience when I was in Shanghai that was exactly of this order. It constituted a chance encounter with a prostitute in an elevator at the hotel I was staying at.
Now of course, like all ordinary males, I have plenty of sexual fantasies, and in my fantasies- which, I think, it might be unhealthy to suppress too much -- desirable women offer themselves to me, and I take lusty advantage of it. This is quite different to what actually happens in the real world, of course; I'm a slightly paunchy 53-year-old man. Hardly the stuff of any woman's dreams, mind you, (with the possible exception of my wife--I know I have played prominent roles in at least a few of her nightmares) but no matter how fat and ugly men are, they usually think they are fantastic and desirable. Unlike women, who, no matter how fantastic and desirable they are, usually think they are fat and ugly.
In any event, at my age, and with my looks, a prostitute in an elevator in Shanghai may be about as close as anything is going to come to my fantasies.
I wrote a poem about the experience which is posted on the compliquations poetry page. (scroll down to chinese poem #8)
The gist of it is that in the moment where the encounter actually took place, there was something in me that was immediately present which constituted a real morality. It was quite astonishing to see how instantly and clearly it manifested itself, exactly in accordance with, and in support of, every single thing that Jacob Needleman says about the question of objective, that is, organic, or real, morality.
When we are present, when our centers are working together, morality does not become a debate, a deliberation, or question. It presents itself honestly, solidly, and humanly without any hesitation whatsoever, and it makes a clear and irresolute decision regarding the situation which could never be arrived at if the centers were not working in harmony. Needleman gives several examples of his own in regard to this experience which I think are just wonderful.
How extraordinary, I think, to have an experience of this kind, to have the privilege of knowing such a truth within action, and then to encounter an entire book that lays the foundation for our understanding of morality directly at the feet of such experience.
The point, I think, is that experiences like this take the questions we have, and the lofty ideals we paste on things, and reduce them to something so simple, so utterly human, and so directly compassionate that we begin finally to understand that our intellect alone is incapable of mediating such transactions.
May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.